Grand Canyon. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world. Beloved as a National Park, renowned as a hiking and rafting destination. Visited by upwards of 5 million people per year.
And yet the vast majority of visitors only see a small part of the Canyon: the places easily accessible and packed with crowds.
Out beyond the hiking corridors, manmade skywalks, and car-filled parking lots lies a remote wilderness of deep canyons, sandstone terraces, dramatic waterfalls, and natural arches. It’s an arduous journey to reach these places, either by foot or by raft (often both).
However, if you are willing to go through the immense mental, physical, and emotional challenge to see Grand Canyon’s hidden wonders, you will be rewarded with some of the most jaw-dropping scenery that Arizona has to offer.
Here’s a look at the short-list of Grand Canyon’s most special, but relatively unknown backcountry gems. Unless you are a Canyon-obsessed hiking beast or a sun-baked river runner, chances are you have never heard of any of these amazing places. Of course, reaching these destinations can be a dangerous proposition, and potentially deadly if pursued without care.
1. Thunder River, Tapeats Creek, and Deer Creek
Known as the world’s shortest named river, Thunder River bursts out of a limestone cliff (known as Thunder Spring) in spectacular fashion, making for an incredible contrast between desert landscape and raging waters.
It’s a sight to behold, especially considering that the blistering hike in is nothing to be trifled with. In the past, numerous hikers have run out of water and succumbed to the heat of the plateau above before ever reaching salvation at Thunder River.
If you can make it there, Thunder Spring is just the tip of the desert oasis iceberg. Downstream, Thunder River intersects Tapeats Creek, yet another clear-running stream, with primo backpacking campsites along the cascades and cottonwood trees.
A day’s hike to the east sits Deer Creek, with its sculpted sandstone narrows and iconic waterfall. The hardiest travelers do this as a multi-day backpacking trip of epic proportions, while the smartest make it a stop during a rafting trip on the Colorado, skipping the hellish hike in and out.
2. Cheyava Falls
The tallest waterfall in Arizona, Cheyava Falls tumbles for 800 vertical feet from a remote cliff below the Grand Canyon North Rim. It is most easily seen from the South Rim, although you may need a good set of binoculars to see the falls which will be 10 miles away across canyon.
At that distance, it looks more like a kitchen faucet than of a waterfall. To truly appreciate its splendor up close and personal, a tough overnight hike is required.
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It starts out pleasantly enough with a steep, knee-busting 6.5-mile descent down the popular but challenging South Kaibab Trail. Once across the Colorado River at the bottom, it’s a lonely 7 miles out to Clear Creek, plus 4 miles of rugged bushwhacking up a brush-choked wash to the base of the falls.
If you’ve planned your trip wisely, you will stand at the most impressive water show that the Canyon has to offer. Just be sure to set up a campsite at Clear Creek Campground to split this into a multi-day hike, unless a 35-mile round-trip day hike sounds like a fun time to you.
3. Kanab Creek
Kanab Creek can be explored as a leisurely day hike up from the river during a rafting trip or as an all-out week-long backpacking expedition. To truly enjoy all of what Kanab has to offer, the backpacking trip is definitely the best option.
From the car to the Colorado River and back, a four or five-day trip is in order, with narrow slot canyons, cascading creek waters, and plenty of boulder hopping along the way.
The hike in through the dry but beautiful Jumpup Canyon is a destination in itself, but once you reach the flowing waters of Kanab Creek, it’s a canyon paradise all the way down to the Colorado.
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Points of interest include Showerbath Spring (a hanging garden), Scotty’s Castle (a massive sandstone monolith), Whispering Falls (a gorgeous ribbon-like waterfall), plus numerous slot canyons and grottos.
The beauty is never-ending, but should only be attempted by the experienced, as a wrong turn can turn this canyon into a maze, and a dream-hike into a nightmare.
4. Little Colorado River
Havasupai is the Insta-famous land of blue-green waters, and these days is more and more overrun with crowds. A much less crowded but far more challenging alternative is a trek into the Little Colorado River Gorge, a large and sheer-walled side canyon fed by calcium-carbonate charged springs just like those in Havasu Canyon.
Making your way here is not only a physical feat and route-finding challenge, but requires extensive planning. For if you venture in after recent rains, flash floods from upstream overrun the deep blue waters with brown mud. But hit it just right and you’ll have the blue-green waters all to yourself.
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There are a few different ways to get into the LCR, all of which require descending down extraordinarily rugged, often non-existent trails. Beyond the physical challenges, the area is located outside the National Park on the Navajo Reservation, so permission is required by the tribe via a hiking permit, making for an extra hoop to jump through just to get your foot in the door.
To boot, caution must always be used in canyon country in regards to flash floods but can be especially hazardous in the LCR where flood waters can travel from hundreds of miles upstream without warning. Most famously, beloved photographer George Mancuso died during a flash flood along the LCR in 2001.
5. Royal Arch
Royal Arch itself is a massive and extraordinary natural bridge worthy of acclaim, yet the journey is even more highly regarded than the destination, especially among adventurers that want a hefty dose of risk in their itinerary.
The infamous Royal Arch Route encompasses 35 miles of beautiful, remote, and primitive Grand Canyon wilderness. It requires crossing steep talus slopes, navigating off-trail in a maze of cliffs and ravines, rappelling off of a 20-foot high wall, and at one point: traversing a 10-inch wide ledge over a deadly drop. As such, this is an experts-only route, as one careless decision could lead to serious injury or worse.
If you have the grit and the brains to complete this adventure, it might just be the best one ever. Not only is it an achievement of epic proportions, but the scenery along the way will leave you speechless.
Royal Arch is perhaps the climax, yet there are stunning views at every turn. Not to mention the potential for a side trip to Elves Chasm, a famous waterfall filled grotto near the Colorado River. While river runners visit the Chasm as a quick stop, hikers of the Royal Arch Route appreciate it as the icing on the cake of a trip of a lifetime.
6. Matkatamiba Canyon Narrows
Affectionately known to river runners as Matkat, the sandstone narrows of Matkatamiba Canyon is one of the top stops on rafting trips. For good reason, it’s a beautifully sculptured slot canyon with an idyllic little creek running right through it.
Navigating up the creek bed requires some parkour skills as passage gets tight and steep in numerous places. Folks of athletic builds and fit physiques are definitely best suited for this kind of travel.
This is an amazing, fun, and relatively low-risk place for exploration when hiking up from the river, but the real adventure comes if by venturing on foot from the Canyon rim high above. To even access the hike in point out on Great Thumb Mesa is an off-road driving challenge (two spare tires strongly recommended), followed by a dangerous off-trail climb down the cliff walls into Matkatamiba Canyon itself.
Venturing in this way requires knowledge and care, but provides beauty and solitude unmatched by any other corner of Grand Canyon.
Known as Grand Canyon’s toughest trail, the Nankoweap Trail drops off the North Rim and descends a parched south-facing, sun-baked slope all the way down to the banks of the Colorado River. If you can manage the heat and trail conditions, arrival at Nankoweap Camp is like a little slice of heaven.
A flowing creek empties into the raging Colorado River below some of the tallest, most impressive cliff faces in the Canyon. A short scramble up a nearby hillside will reach an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling with multi-million dollar view.
It’s a popular stop for river trips, so sometimes the solitude disappears, but the guides are usually more than willing to share a beer or two.
With a massive elevation change of over 6,000 feet, this trail remains long, steep, and unmaintained — and completely non-existent in places. As such, it can be a killer, in the literal sense of the word. On a blazing hot day in July 1996, Nankoweap claimed the life of a 15-year old Boy Scout by way of heat exhaustion when his troop ran out of water and lost the trail on the hike in (several other teens and adults barely escaped with their lives).
If you can make it down in one piece, that’s all well and good, but you damn well better have stashed a gallon or two of agua on the hike out, or you might find yourself with an empty canteen and whole lot of canyon left to climb.